- The Washington Times - Friday, August 20, 2004

ATHENS — Michael Phelps ended his magnificent Olympics with a magnanimous gesture.

He matched Mark Spitz’s record of four individual gold medals in the pool, then gave up a coveted spot on the 400-meter medley relay team to Ian Crocker — whom Phelps had just beaten.

With five gold medals and two bronze ones overall, Phelps is content to win a historic eighth medal while sitting in the stands tonight.

His Olympics is over.

“We came into this meet as a team,” Phelps said. “We’ll leave here as a team.”

In an Olympics that became his personal showcase, the 19-year-old from Baltimore came through with another stirring performance yesterday in the 100-meter butterfly. He rallied to beat the man who held the world record and had defeated him at both the world championships and the U.S. trials.

Normally, the winner of the 100 butterfly gets a spot in the medley relay final. But everyone who participates on a medal-winning relay team — whether in the preliminaries or a final — is rewarded.

Therefore, Phelps still can tie Soviet gymnast Aleksandr Dityatin’s record of eight medals in one Olympics, set at the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games. The United States has never lost a medley relay and will be an overwhelming favorite again — no matter who swims the butterfly.

“It’s tough to give up the relay, it really is,” Phelps said. “But Ian is one of the greatest relay swimmers in the world. He wasn’t feeling well during the 400 relay. Hopefully, he’ll step up big in the medley relay.”

Certainly Phelps had every reason to be tired after racing for the 17th time in seven days. He competed in the medley relay preliminaries in the morning, while Crocker had been able to rest for their showdown.

And though Phelps says he is looking forward to breaking training — “It’s McDonald’s time” — no one doubts he had another race left in him.

“I’m speechless,” said Crocker, looking to redeem himself after his poor performance last Sunday. “It’s a huge gift but difficult to accept. It makes me want to just go out there and tear up the pool tomorrow.”

Another thing: Phelps is sensitive to teammates who have been overshadowed by his amazing accomplishments leading up to these Games.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Phelps said.

Said U.S. coach Eddie Reese: “It came down to [Phelps]. I never talked to him about it. It’s a heck of a gesture.”

And it wasn’t lost on the International Olympic Committee.

“He’s a great champion,” said IOC President Jacques Rogge, who watched Phelps’ victory from a front-row seat at the Aquatic Center. “Definitely, he is going to be one of the icons of the Games.”

In yesterday’s race, Crocker started strong and made the turn under world-record pace, about a half-body length ahead of Phelps, who was lagging in fifth place.

Using his huge wingspan, Phelps began to dig furiously into the water, leaving behind a wake that resembled a washing machine churning a load of clothes. With 20 meters to go, he had pulled up on Crocker’s shoulder. At the wall, both men lunged for the gold.

Phelps got it, beating Crocker by a minuscule four-hundredths of a second in an Olympic record time of 51.25. Andriy Serdinov of Ukraine took the bronze with 51.36.

Spitz was in the stands to watch Phelps’ final race. As the teenager walked around the deck with his latest gold medal, he spotted Spitz holding up four fingers.

“Just to be mentioned in the same sentence with him is unbelievable,” Phelps said.

In all, Spitz won a record seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Games. Phelps will fall short of that record, but this performance — in a swimming world that is much more competitive than three decades ago — could very well be more impressive than the one he was chasing.

Now, after a hard week and the performance of a lifetime, Phelps can take it easy and enjoy the show.

“It’s a good thing to be able to sit back and relax a little,” Phelps said. “But when tomorrow’s final comes, I will be in the stands and cheering as hard as I can for the U.S. team.”

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